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Thesis: Stravinsky.

Dialectic and Aesthetics:
Adorno on Modern Music 4




December 5th 1949.
It is disgusting, by the way, how he treats Stravinsky. I am certainly no admirer of Stravinsky although I like a piece of his here and there very much – but one should not write like that.

—Schoenberg, to his biographer, H.H. Stuckenschmidt.1


Stravinsky argues ‘a restoration can be achieved through new stylistic forms that dovetail with the existing social order.’

INITIALLY A MEMBER of the Second Viennese School of Music, Igor Stravinsky parts company by arguing a restoration can be achieved through new stylistic forms that dovetail with the existing social order. ‘The demeanour of music should not tolerate any contradiction.’ Rather, music is a conversation with the listener. This does not mean, however, a simple return to the idiom of Bach or Mozart. He ‘despised the easy way to authenticity.’2

Stravinsky’s acrobatic cleverness and crafty mastery have been essentially free of such naïveté since the very beginning.

Starting his career as a staff composer of the Russian Ballet, his music, such as Petrouchka, has its beginnings in cabaret. It is

…’neo-impressionistic’ in style…is pieced together from innumerable artistic fragments, from the minutely detailed whirring of the fair-ground down to the mocking imitation of all music rejected by official culture.

As with the madness of the acrobat, until his ‘break-neck attempt succeeds,

…Stravinsky’s harmony always remains in a state of suspension, thus evading the gravitation of the step-by-step progression of chords.

This part of Stravinsky’s music is reasonably clear. The music mimics the story. It tries to represent the social context of the ballet.

Less clear is Adorno’s claim that Stravinsky’s music is phenomenological. As he puts it, ‘The relationship to concurrent philosophical phenomenology is unmistakable.’ Does he mean Husserl’s Transcendental Ego is at work? Is there some sort of bracketing, or ‘reduction to pure phenomenon’? Stravinsky’s aim in depicting the original, authentic, primordial experience is clear. Whether this is comparable to a fundamental starting point, to Descartes’ Cogito, or Husserl’s presuppositionlessness is not. And how this philosophical point might translate to, or be understood in terms of, actual music remains a mystery. By contrast, the simplified musical substance of Petrouchka is straightforward.

This simplicity corresponds to the position taken by the music towards its theme: it is the position of the highly entertained observer of fair-ground scenes…

It is in considering The Rite of Spring, ‘as the virtuoso composition of regression,’ where Adorno clarifies the argument.

Stravinsky’s theme, in following Russian folk tales, is an exploration of the primitive. It is a regression, as it were, to pre-literate culture.

There are a number of formulations of Stravinsky’s method from this point, not all of which are consistent. The first attempt is crystal clear, and places Stravinsky in an historical perspective. It has nothing to do with phenomenology or psychoanalytic theories of regression. It is simply the contention that Stravinsky’s theme, in following Russian folk tales, is an exploration of the primitive. It is a regression, as it were, to pre-literate culture. The music tries to imitate this context, but not to ‘abandon itself to regression’ or fall ‘into the hands of the feared forces’. In The Rite of Spring, ‘…a ruthlessly applied artistic principle of selection and stylisation achieves the effect of the primeval world.’ It is part of a reaction against ‘neo-Romantic melodising’, against ‘the saccharin of Strauss’. The melody is replaced by impressionism, ‘…a rudimentary succession of tones’; following Debussy, ‘the atomisation of the motif.’

The Impressionistic model of polytonality consists of the interlaced sounds of varying and spatially separated musics, as at a fair. All of the scattered infinitesimal remnants are intended to represent the heritage of the primeval age…

Although Mahler attempted to cling to melos, in Debussy, melodies ‘are reduced to elementary tonal combinations’. Stravinsky goes further, and ‘…totally discards the concept of melody in favour of a truncated, primitivistic pattern.’ These truncated particles are never, however, atonal. There is always a limited selection of the twelve tones, ’…as if the other tones were taboo and not to be touched.’ Harmonic progression and development disappears, replaced by the raw dissonance of rhythmic motifs.


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RHYTHM IS A central element in Stravinsky’s compositions, particularly The Rite of Spring, and it is here that he made much musical progress, leaving his imitators far behind. As a ‘rhythmist’, he restored ‘…the rhythmic dimension of music…which had become overgrown by melodic-harmonic thinking….’ By this, he has ‘excavated the buried origins of music’ in ‘rhythms of primitive rites’. These are anthropological points. There is also a psychoanalytic point. In Stravinsky’s music there appears some restraint in the rhythm, which his followers were unable to exercise. Adorno call this his ‘renunciation’; a ‘self denial’ of these rhythmic impulses, which can always, if left unchecked, lead to a psychological regression. This is an incipient problem in Stravinsky’s treatment of rhythm. For now, it is seen as a deterioration in compositional technique. By contrast, Schoenberg’s rhythm can assume ‘the role of the theme’, ‘charged with melodic and contrapuntal content’. In Stravinsky, it is employed for ‘shock effect’. Because it is not tied to a theme, and is ‘split off from musical content’, it is arbitrary and ‘can be controlled only by taste’ . In The Rite of Spring, the shock of death is seen in the sacrificial dance of the peasant girl. This was the collective power of Russian paganism, yet Adorno is still critical of Stravinsky for not allowing the subject to anticipate any anxiety or exhibit any resistance. The peasant girl reflexively absorbs the blows and ‘… behaves literally like a critically injured victim of an accident…’. Stravinsky’s music mirrors this. There is the shock, then submission to the rhythmic blows.

In the presentation of this material, Adorno suggests an analogy between Cubism and modern music. Archaism, or primitivism, is presented in modernist ways. In Petrouchka, it was the grotesque. In The Rite of Spring laughter is replaced by sacrifice. In both cases, Adorno is not happy. In the former, the Bourgeois accepts the alien and progressive elements in modern art on the proviso that it is predicated on laughter. It was not meant to be taken seriously. In the latter, there also is an ‘ideological trick’. It denies any antagonism between the alienated individuals – who are simply reduced to an ‘unconscious and coincidental reflex of pain’3 — and the repression by the group. Adorn’s criticism is that

…there is no development of an aesthetic antithesis between the sacrificial victims and the tribe.4

Adorno suggests this trick also manifests itself in the structure of the music when the girl dances herself to death. Marxian terms such as ‘self-negation’ and ‘destruction of individuation’ are used, and the audience is enjoined to sadomasochistic pleasure by either enjoying the ‘horrible act of violence’, or identifying with the ‘…collective power in a state of magic regression.’ 5There is an uncanny resemblance between this ‘aboriginal Russian bear’ and Wagner’s Valkyrie. Now Adorno’s allusions increasingly turn to psychoanalysis. To understand the significance of regression in this context, it is necessary to briefly consider its meaning for Freud.

Regression as Neurosis and Archaic Heritage.

IN THE INTERPRETATION of Dreams, Sigmund Freud discusses the role of ‘regression’ in psychoanalysis. The mechanism has a normal function in dreams, where the ‘wish seeking fulfilment’ is explained. The ‘impetus to the construction of dreams’, the ‘retrogressive movement’, is the Unconscious. Regression also has a pathological sense, where it

…plays a no less important part in the theory of the formation of neurotic symptoms than it does in that of dreams.6

Here Freud distinguishes between three kinds. As a rule, they occur together. First, topological regression refers to the interplay between the Unconscious, Pre-conscious, and the Conscious. Second, formal regression. Here Anna Freud’s elucidation is succinct. In orthodox psychoanalysis, maturation of the individual is seen as a psycho-sexual development of four stages. Starting with the oral, then followed by the anal, latency, and finally genital. Regression is either a fixation in, or reversion to, an earlier stage. Summarising her father, Anna Freud includes regression as one of her ten mechanisms of defence, a ‘…protection of the ego against instinctual demands…’7.   of the id. The affects of this conflict between the ego and the id, is neurosis. This is distinct from psychosis, which is a conflict between the ego and reality. When ‘…a particular gratification of instinct is repressed, some substitute is found…’8 In obsessional neurosis, for example, a substitute pleasure is found in a regression to the anal. In hysteria,

…the sexual excitation finds discharge in other bodily zones or processes, which have become sexualised.9

Third, temporal regression refers to the anthropological origins, ‘…a harking back to older psychic structures…’10 This sense of regression is an even more speculative conjecture. Freud explains, by quoting Nietzsche’s assertion on dreams.

Some primaeval relic of humanity is at work which we can now scarcely reach any longer by a direct path.…we may expect that the analysis of dreams will lead us to a knowledge of man’s archaic heritage, of what is psychologically innate in him. Dreams and neuroses seem to have preserved more mental antiquities than we could imagine possible; so that psycho-analysis may claim a high place among the sciences which are concerned with the reconstruction of the earliest and most obscure periods of the beginnings of the human race.11

Following Adorno’s first characterisation of Stravinsky’s rhythmic impulse in musical terms, psychoanalytic notions are now introduced.

Following Adorno’s first characterisation of Stravinsky’s rhythmic impulse in musical terms, psychoanalytic notions are now introduced. Just as Freud makes a connection between the archaic heritage and neurosis, as different manifestations of regression, Adorno also posits a connection. In his words, ‘Freud defined the similarity between the spiritual life of primitives and neurotics.’ For Freud, this is regression to the Unconscious. Adorno adds a moral judgement. Stravinsky

…now despises the primitives and clings to that upon which the experience of the modern can rely: to that archaism which determines the basic stratum of the individual and which reappears directly and without disguise in the decomposition of the individual.12

Freud’s point, of course, is that the archaic heritage is disguised — lost in the Unconscious — but possibility uncovered in dreams. There is no despising of primitives. He suggests that, in the Unconscious, there is a part of the primitive shared by everyone. This is the connection between Freud’s theory and the collective unconscious of Carl Jung. It is not ‘decomposition’, but something the ego has to deal with.

Some time after the publication of Totem and Taboo, in 1919, Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex — the repressed wish of the son to kill the father and marry the mother — was challenged by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Freud had suggested the slaying of the father was the first totemic crime and the source of the incest taboo. In Sex and Repression in Savage Society, published in 1927 — based on Trobriand Island field work carried out during the First World War — Malinowski asks these questions: “Why would the young males remain hanging around the parental horde?…Why not leave for females in other groups?”…Why wait and kill the father?” It seems as if the primeval horde

…has been equipped with all the bias, maladjustments and ill-tempers of a middle-class European family, and then let loose in a prehistoric jungle to run riot in a most attractive but fantastic hypothesis.13

Malinowski’s main objection, however, is that Freud’s psychologistic argument is circular. Psychological facts cannot be the cause of culture because they presuppose culture. For the sons to feel remorse – for it to be a ‘totemic crime’ – requires pre-existing mores, sacred ceremonies and social bonds. A ‘conscience is a most unnatural mental trait imposed upon man by culture.’14 Malinowski’s point might be extended to art. It also presupposes culture, and cannot be simply explained, or criticised, by psychopathologies.

The chief problem in Adorno’s analysis of music is that he uncritically proceeds along Freud’s reductionist path. There are the various forms of regression, as outlined in psychoanalysis, and these are the source of social repression. In short, psychoanalysis is employed to explicate false consciousness, where social repression is not recognised. In Stravinsky, there is a ‘musical equivalence’, as he latches onto ‘infantilism’.

Stravinsky was always prone to exploit children’s songs as messengers of the primeval to the individual. 15

Adorno now explores the ‘permanent regression’ in Stravinsky’s musical form. As a piece of psychoanalysis it is confused. The primacy of culture is not acknowledged. Anthropology and psychology are conflated and an odd account of psycho-social development is given:

Psychology has proven that the individual passes through archaic stages of development in early childhood.16

It would be more correct to say, as Freud expresses it, that a

…child cannot successfully complete its development to the civilised stage without passing through a phase of neurosis…’17

Adorno continues, but is equally perplexing:

…Stravinsky’s anti-psychological rage…cannot possibly be separated from the psychological conception of the unconscious as a principle prerequisite of individuation.18

Following Fromm, it is clear enough that freedom to individuation would require freedom from these archaic constraints, but Adorno is certainly not following this sort of psychoanalytic revisionism. He proceeds by exploring infantilism, and, as dramatic as it might seem, psychosis.

According to Adorno, as music has become more modern, the earlier is the regress into pre-history. In Early Romanticism, it was the Middle Ages, in Wagner, Germanic polytheism, in Stravinsky, the totemic clan. In Stravinsky’s case, this is presented as if it was a positivist theorem of Ernst Mach. Stravinsky

…clings to the primeval world as though it were a matter of proven actuality. He constructs an imaginary ethnographic model of the pre-individualised, which he would like to distil with precision in his works.19

With Stravinsky’s music, the question arises as to whether this regress is a voyage of discovery to Freud’s archaic heritage — as in the analysis of dreams. Or is it a form of neurosis — as a defence mechanism — that the composer wishes to convey. Adorno suggests both. The regress is unsatisfactory — the dream has not been explained — because the ‘communicative symbols’ of the music fails in some sense the ‘primeval world’. He also suggests, in Stravinsky’s case, that there is an‘…abyss between the repressive impulse and its musical materialisation…’.20 This impulse is a form of compulsion, that at one level is a neurosis, at other points, a psychosis. As exaggerated as the claim of psychosis might seem, because this pathology arises from the breakdown between the ego and reality, it is a convenient stop for a Marxist to psychoanalyse false consciousness.

As a voyage of discovery to the archaic heritage, there is ‘no easy road back to these origins.’

The belief that the archaic simply lies at the aesthetic disposal of the ego – in order that the ego might regenerate itself through it – is superficial…21

In Freud, this heritage was speculative. Although Adorno is right in observing there is a problem in reconciling ‘…archaic impulse…with civilisation’,22 the function that music might play in this reconciliation is not clear. Are there latent manifestations, as in a dream? According to Freud, we are always subject to illusions, or instinctual wishes. To confront these, modernity turns not to religion but reason, scepticism, and, relatively recently, science. According to Freud, these are the best hopes for civilisation.23 From Adorno’s perspective, a turn to positivistic science would be the worst possible hope for civilisation.

The regress understood as neurosis, and, in Adorno’s analysis, the conflation with psychosis, is illustrated in The Rite of Spring. As a work, it is an ‘…outspoken sadomasochistic pleasure in self annihilation…’ The music falls victim to the basic drives of these psychological forces, and ‘is eventually crippled by all of this.’24 The music becomes neurotic and psychotic. It

…is an aping of obsession (neurosis) and, even more so, of schizophrenia — the psychotic intensification of obsession (my elaboration)…25

Infantilism and Psychosis.

WRITING IN THE prelude to the First Word War, Stravinsky’s music was a defence mechanism ‘against the insanity of war’. Through infantilism,

…the music imprints upon itself an attitude similar to that of the mentally ill. The individual brings about his own disintegration. From such imitation he promises himself a chance to survive his own demise. He imagines the fulfilment of the promises through magic…26

At this point, Adorno explains Stravinsky’s ‘infantile phase’, not in musical terms, but anthropologically. Just as in the primeval past individuation is circumscribed by the clan, today there are evolved forms of repression. In Marxian terms, this is analysed as bourgeois culture. A Freudian addendum is that this repression is a

…residue of the primeval past, and at the same time is filled with horror before a future in which the individual must cast aside everything which made him…27

The whole point of art, of music in particular, is that it is a ’soothing comfort’ a ‘harmonious’ ‘displacement’ of this horror. After the First World War, this was the ‘aesthetic heir’ to the practice of magic in preliterate culture. It was what German Expressionism, in painting, and Schoenberg, in music, stood against. By contrast, Stravinsky acquiesced.

The schizophrenic demeanour of Stravinsky’s music is a ritual which attempts to overcome the coldness of the world.28

In this, his music is an illusion. Because Adorno is suggesting this illusion is psychological, not transcendental, he turns to Freud, not Kant, to map out the dimensions. The pathology is psychosis, where the patient view their body as ‘an alien object’. In ballet, Stravinsky’s music is alienated from the dances. This depersonalisation has a clinical counterpoint in schizophrenic hebephrenia. In dance this is frigidity, rigidity and immobility. The rhythmic score resembles a catatonic condition. There is ‘an infinite repetition of gestures or words’, a repetition which ‘produces an illusion of bodily movement’ in the dances.29 As a form of aesthetic consciousness, it hopes ‘to vindicate insanity as true health.’ Lyrical metaphors now cascade:

The physiognomy of his work combines that of a clown with… an upper-level civil servant.30

His work ‘plays the fool’ with mischievous bows, and when the mask is removed we find.

The conceited dandy of aestheticism from the good old days, who has now had his fill of emotions, turns out to be the tailors dummy: the pathological outsider as the model of innumerable normal men, all of whom resemble each other.31

The implications from Kant’s Copernican Revolution figure consistently throughout Adorno’s philosophy of music. This is particularly the case with his notion of the self.

The implications from Kant’s Copernican Revolution figure consistently throughout Adorno’s philosophy of music. This is particularly the case with his notion of the self. Problems are couched in terms of the subject-object relation. He sides with Kant, in assuming the logical priority of epistemology over ontology. His analysis, whether psychological, anthropological or ethical, accepts the primacy of the subject. But he rejects Kant’s transcendental solution to secure objectivity. Pure reason is replaced by psychoanalytic conceptions of the self. And he rejects Hegel’s identity theory of the subject-object relation as a solution to Kant’s subjectivism. He believed the shortcoming of Hegel, is that the subject is objectified. The self is alienated, through reification into an object. Everyone becomes a tailor’s dummy. Stravinsky’s

…music registers the disintegration of life, and simultaneously, the alienated state of the consciousness of the subject.

The subject

…is no longer permitted to state anything about itself, thus actually ceases to engage in ‘production’ and must content itself with the hollow echo of objective musical language, which is no longer its own.32

Music about music, and the loss of Subjectivity.

IT IS A ‘pathogenic arrangement’, the ‘worst nightmare’, and this hollow echo is described as ‘music about music’. In Petrouchka, banal recollections ‘of the hand-organ and children’s rhymes’. In L’Histoire du Soldat, ‘melodic nuclei’ are ‘totally devalued’. They

…bear traces of commonplace music – the march, the idiotic-fiddle, the antiquated waltz, indeed even of the current dances such as tango and ragtime.

Stravinsky’s music about music is parody; an imitation which involves degradation. It is a regression to infantile music,

…in a manner much like that of a child who takes apart his toys and puts them together again incorrectly.

In this infantilism, there is disjunction, where sound

…resembles the appearances of pictures pasted together out of postage stamps… a montage which has been constructed with labyrinthine density.

The central problem is that the material can never be its own driving force.

The composition is realised not through development, but through faults which permeate its structure….His music continually directs its gaze towards other materials, which it then ‘consumes’ through the over-exposure of its rigid and mechanical characteristics.33

This pictorial image of music comes from painting.

There is an analogue between transitions in painting and in music; from Impressionism to Cubism, from Debussy to Stravinsky.

The ear must be re-educated if it is to understand Debussy correctly, seeking not a process of obstruction and release, but perceiving a juxtaposition of colours and surfaces such as to be found in a painting.

The Impressionism — the ‘spaciousness and surface expanse’ — of Debussy is borrowed by Stravinsky. But the atmosphere of this space is lost, because there is no ‘subjective experience of time’.

Time is of the essence in music. Adorno defines time in music from the Kantian point of view.

When Adorno talks of space, this is not just a metaphor with painting, but linked to a conception of space/time. Time is of the essence in music. Adorno defines time in music from the Kantian point of view. In music, our experience of time involves two modes of listening. Originating in singing, the experience of time is through an ‘expressive-dynamic’. It is subjective. By contrast, the objective side ‘obeys the beat of the drum’. This incorporates time through a ‘rhythmic- spacial mode’. In one sense this is simply tempo. In another sense, it is ‘the ever-constant underlying meter’, as in a metronome. Because there can be gaps, there is space. Adorno next contends that great music incorporates both aspects of time, the subjective and the objective. It draws a synthesis, a high point of which was Beethoven and the sonata form. The shortcoming of Stravinsky’s mode of listening is it is only objective. It only ‘obeys the beat of the drum’. From this, the assertions on regression reappear.

His music attracts all those who wish to rid themselves of their ego, because it stands in the way of their egoistic interest within…commanded collectivisation…

In other words, the tribe and the beat of the drum. This is at once regression and objectification. The sociological analysis proceeds:

The dying out of subjective time in music seems totally unavoidable in the midst of a humanity which has made itself into a thing — into an object of its own organisation.34

One of the merits of Schoenberg’s New Viennese School was to recapture this expressive notion of time. Stravinsky does not.

The transition in Stravinsky and Schoenberg’s music occurred together. In Schoenberg, it was radical, from free atonality to the twelve-tone technique. In Stravinsky, it was reactionary, from infantilism to the neo-classical. It was a regression to triviality, where atonality was ‘no more than a spice within the work’. This was part of his program of music about music.

Stravinsky’s neo-classicism practices the old custom of joining brokenly disparate models together. It is traditional music combed in the wrong direction.

It is a restoration that aims to reconcile the past with the present. A wish for his music to be familiar, and labelled modern.

This indicates the willingness inherent in his music to be used as fashionable commercial music – similar to the willingness of surrealism to be used for shop-window decoration.…everything which he composed in the nineteen-forties, have a dullness characteristic of commercial art, not at all dissimilar to the last works of Ravel.

Two hundred years of bourgeois music is rearranged with his ‘rhythmic tricks’. In his last body of work, there are ‘a few penetrating moments’ , such as in his Violin Concerto. The Concerto for Two Pianos also has merit, but here the fugue ‘…contradicts everything which proceeded it…(and)…it is much too short and insufficiently developed.’
Stravinsky’s pastiche counts against the development of theme. His Symphony in Three Movements, composed in 1945, is impressive in the way it

…is cleansed of antiquated components, presents contours of cutting sharpness, and applies itself to a lapidary homophony which might well have had Beethoven in mind.


The reduction of all thematic material in the work to the most simple primitive motives…Beethoven-like, has no influence upon the structure. This represents…the static juxtaposition of ‘blocks’ – with the addition of a few time-honoured displacements.35 

Fourth in a series.

Dr Tronn Overend is the author of Social Idealism and the Problem of Objectivity (Queensland University Press, 1983) and the author of numerous articles on social theory and the philosophy of the social sciences. His essay “An Objective Theory of Modernist Aesthetics” appeared in The Fortnightly Review in 2018; his essay “The Beginning and the End of Art…in Tasmania” followed in 2019.

Minor alterations after publication were made to correct typographical and editorial errors.


  1. Vera Stravinsky and Robert Craft. Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents. Hutchinson. London. 1979: 633
  2. This and other quotations and references in this section: Theodore Adorno, Philosophy of Modern MusicBloomsbury Academic, Bloomsbury Revelations edition. 2016.
  3. Theodore Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music. Bloomsbury Academic. Bloomsbury Revelations Edition. U.K. 2016:2
  4. Adorno.216:109.
  5. Adorno.2016:109.
  6. Sigmund Freud. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by James Strachey. George Allen & Unwin Ltd. London. 1971: 548
  7. Anna Freud. The Ego and the Mechanism of Defense. The Hogath Press Ltd. London. 1968:43
  8. Anna Freud. 1968:155.
  9. Anna Freud. 1968:155.
  10. Freud. 1971:548. The notion of archaic heritage has recently been adopted by ‘First Nation’ people. Aboriginal activists , in Australia for example, now claim a memory of colonial dispossession and massacre.
  11. Freud. 1971:549.
  12. Adorno. 2016:111
  13. Bronislaw Malinowski, Sex and Repression in Savage Society. Routledge & Kegan Paul. London. 2001:131.
  14. Malinowski. 2001:131.
  15. Adorno. 2016:111
  16. Adorno. 2016:114
  17. Sigmund Freud. The Future of Illusions. Translated by WD Robson-Scott. Edition by James Strachey. The Hogarth Press Ltd. London. 1968:38
  18. Adorno. 2016:114
  19. Adorno 2016:115.
  20. Adorno. 2016:115.
  21. Adorno. 2016:116
  22. Adorno. 2016:116
  23. See Freud. 1968:47-52.
  24. Adorno 2016:115
  25. Adorno 2016: 116
  26. Adorno 2016:117
  27. Adorno 2016:117
  28. Adorno 2016:118
  29. Adorno 2016:123
  30. Adorno 2016:118
  31. Adorno 2016:118-119
  32. Adorno 2016:125
  33. Adorno 2016:124-128
  34. Adorno 2016:129-135
  35. Adorno 2016:140-146

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